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Brian Message puts ‘NDA culture’ back in the spotlight at ERA launch

By | Published on Wednesday 25 February 2015

Brian Message

While Beggars boss Martin Mills wrapped up the launch of the Entertainment Retailers Association’s new manifesto yesterday morning, artist manager Brian Message kick-started the proceedings, with both men delivering bold speeches and overtly firing some shots at the major music rights owners.

Noting that, since stepping down as Chair of the Music Managers Forum, he has been able to focus his commitment to the organisation by looking more closely at “streaming, technology and the new business models”, he observed that “it’s opportune for me to be able to stand here and talk to key drivers of change and innovation, you the retailers and digital service providers”.

“It’s also relevant from my perspective” he added, “because I see us, the professional creator and management community, beginning to align ourselves much more with those operating at the coal face of the paying fan. It isn’t, therefore, too much of a stretch to suggest that with us being close to our artists and their creative process, much as you are close to your consumers, fans, and their purchasing habits, that together we can add real value to the economic chain from creator to fan”.

But, he added, “that economic chain isn’t without it’s challenges, as you probably know just as well as us; in fact, many of my colleagues would go as far as to say that it’s pretty well broken and needs fixing. For us, central to this structural failure is the NDA culture that is now ingrained in the licensing of creator catalogues to retailers and digital services”.

“The lack of transparency and the very real erosion of trust felt by many creators and managers in how the economic value chain now operates is an issue that the MMF and ERA needs to focus on together so we can add real value to our members”.

“Since taking on my new role within MMF and having now met with whistle-blowers, lawmakers, artists, managers, label personnel, digital service providers, lawyers and litigators on all sides and pretty much everyone else in the chain, I’m now reasonably sure that whilst it takes two parties to sign an NDA, it’s the corporates owning the major labels that today drive this particular agenda”.

That, Message implied, was because secrecy enabled the major rights owners to structure deals to their advantage, and to the disadvantage of other stakeholders in the recorded music sector, not least artists.

He continued: “I understand how corporate bosses and their lawyers get to a place where they feel the catalogues they have amassed on behalf of their corporation are assets to leverage as they so wish. I get how they can justify their actions at a time of huge economic change for their businesses, but it becomes a problem for you and us when deal terms remove significant value from the economic value chain”.

“When the price of getting a license from a licensor is a non-attributable fee and those fees add up to tens of millions of pounds, then not only is this an issue for creators, but licensees cannot spend that money converting fans to paid-for subscription services. Overhead contributions, technology fees, advances that can’t be recouped, unattributable advances, equity positions at the expense of streaming rates, the dropping of litigation to receive shares that then get sold and other such clever tactics distort the market and ultimately don’t allow it’s development for the benefit of everyone”.

The NDA culture that has become a norm in the music industry’s digital deal making has been a top gripe for the management community in the UK and beyond for a while now, of course (this CMU trends report reviewed the issues last year). Though to date the big music rights owners have done little to address this issue.

And given that the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry now seems set to follow Martin Mills’ speech at the ERA launch – in which he criticised moves for a Friday global release day – by announcing Friday as the global release day, perhaps following Message’s speech next week the majors will announce one big new NDA covering the entire industry. No one will be able to talk about digital deals, artist contracts, or even the existence of streaming music. Lets make it all one big secret. Did you just mention Spotify? See you in court.